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THE HIT

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: John Hurt, Tim Roth, Laura Del Sol, Terence Stamp, Bill Hunter, Fernando Rey
Director: Stephen Frears
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.78:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: See Review
Length: 98 Minutes
Release Date: April 28, 2009

ďWeíre here. Then weíre not here. Weíre somewhere elseÖĒ

Film ***

To mainstream American audiences, British actor Terence Stamp is mostly known for one specific role; the villainous General Zod in the first two Superman movies. However, Stamp is regarded as an icon of 1960s British cinema. His most acclaimed work during that period included films such as Billy Bud, Poor Cow and Far From the Madding Crowd.

Director Steven Soderbergh took advantage of Stampís iconic status overseas when he cast the actor in 1999ís The Limey. For me, it was that film that gave me a whole new perspective on the man I only knew as the intimidating foe of The Man of Steel. I now saw Stamp as a pure badass that you wouldnít want to mess with.

I bring up The Limey mainly because I now find it to be a fitting companion piece to another crime-related film in Stampís resume, a little know gem called The Hit. The only major difference is that in this film, Stamp isnít playing the vengeful con man character like he did in Soderberghís film. While he does play a criminal figure in this film, the character is overall a victim and forced to take a journey where in which he has absolutely no control.

The film marks an early effort from a then unknown British filmmaker, Stephen Frears. In fact, it was right after this film when Frears experienced something of a breakthrough success with his 1985 film, My Beautiful Laundrette. But The Hit nonetheless serves as pivotal film from Frears in that it was a surefire indicator of his atmospheric style, which is used to great effect here.

Stamp plays Willie Parker, who at the beginning of the story is a low-level gangster turned informant. Without an ounce of hesitation, he testifies against all of his criminal associates, including the big boss. After testifying, he pretty much shrugs off the nasty threats thrown his way by his former associates as he leaves the courtroom.

Cut to ten years later, where Willie is enjoying a very quiet and leisurely life in Spain. He resides in an elegant villa, and has become quite a collector of antique books. Given the amount of time that has passed since ratting out his crew, itís clear that Willie expects the past to never come knocking at his door.

Only it does, as Willie is chased down by a gang of Spanish hoods and kidnapped. But the situation doesnít hit him until heís handed over to two British hit men. Itís clear at this point that the consequences of his actions ten year prior are about to be faced.

The two men are indeed associates of Willieís former boss. One is a seasoned professional, Mr. Braddock (John Hurt), and the other a young apprentice, Myron (Tim Roth). The older and wiser Braddock is a man of very few words, while Myron is all hot-tempered and all too eager to prove himself as a ruthless executioner.

They have been ordered to escort Willie all the way back to France, where the boss plans to take care of his demise. But that plan slowly starts to go south, as the men have to find a new means of transportation, and quickly. Braddock ends up paying a visit to an associate of his, and ends up taking not only the manís car but also his girlfriend, Maggie (Laura Del Sol), as a guarantee that heíll keep quiet about the matter.

The plot scenario is one that has been done many times in similar films, and though it has been done to much better effect (the superior Sexy Beast immediately comes to mind), there is simply too much to admire in The Hit. The screenplay by Peter Prince brings with it some magnificent insight into the three lead characters, and the little psychological mind game that ensues results in some fantastic bits that have them playing off one another. As a result, itís sometimes very hard to tell how the story is going to end.

The performances are another big highlight. In addition to Stampís terrific work, John Hurt turns in a superb and chilling performance as the quiet but very menacing Braddock. Then thereís a very young looking Tim Roth in his first big screen role, and in watching him bring so much energy to this role, you can easily see why he went on to bigger and better things.

Atmosphere and mood both play a very big role here in a way that reminded me of a Michael Mann film, which is one of the best compliments any film can get. The cinematography by Mike Molloy captures the authentic locations with such amazing detail, especially in numerous overhead shots. And though most of the music is provided by Spanish composer Paco de Lucia, itís the opening title music by Eric Clapton (which definitely gives a Michael Mann-like feel) that brilliantly sets the tone for the rest of the film.

Video ***1/2

I had no idea this was released to DVD once before, but Iím glad I waited around because the original release included only a full screen version. Thanks to the people at Criterion, the film has now been restored and presented in a most impressive anamorphic widescreen presentation. The film might be 25 years old, but the fine picture quality makes it hard to believe. Despite areas of light grain, the image is very crisp, clear and full of glorious detail. The actual locations in the film look quite stunning in many parts. An all around splendid job!

Audio ***

In studying the differences between this and the previous DVD release, I noticed that the first one included a Dolby 2.0 sound mix. I only mention this because I canít imagine it being superior to the sound mix on this release, which happens to be a Mono track. Itís mainly a dialogue driven film, but every word is captured wonderfully. And the mentioned score sounds most terrific as well, in particular Claptonís guitar based opening music.

Features ***

You can always rely on Criterion to make the most of the extras on their releases, no matter how light the amount may be. For this release, we have a fantastic commentary with director Stephen Frears, actors John Hurt and Tim Roth, screenwriter Peter Prince and editor Mick Audsley. Thereís also a terrific interview segment with Terence Stamp taken from the British television show ďParkinson One-to-OneĒ, which originally aired in 1988. Lastly, we get a Theatrical Trailer and a very detailed booklet insert.

Summary:

Had it not been for Criterion, this film may have forever slipped under my radar. The Hit is an effective thriller/character study that showcases some fine early work from a top flight filmmaker and remarkable cast of actors. The story is familiar, but the mood, atmosphere and performances make this a true gem amongst British-based crime thrillers.

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